In ‘Clothing the Colony’, Stephanie Coo weaves the fabric of history into sartorial Filipino

In many ways, we look back on our history through the study of a series of events, making sense of the many eras of our past according to their timeline. The history of the Philippines has been taught as a division of several periods, starting from our pre-colonial life to contemporary times. Yet despite all the ways we see it on its scale, what if we could unravel its many nuances by zooming in on an item we use every day, like the dress or pants we wear? Because, more than their materiality, clothes can tell our stories, or so, at least, that’s what the 39th National Book Award Best Book in History, Stephanie Coo’s Dressing the Colony: Nineteenth-Century Filipino Dress Culture, 1820-1896 (Ateneo de Manila University Press, 2019) aims to prove.

Perhaps due to the context of a Spanish colonial society full of uncertainties, we have turned to our clothing choices beyond utility to hint at our aspirations, our vulnerabilities and what we want to show. or hide. The half-breed trajectory Where barong tagalog that we wore in huge silhouettes as we strolled the cobbled streets of Manila’s Escolta speaks volumes. In Dress up the colony, for example, Stephanie Coo unveils the 19th century through the wardrobe – clothes are seen at a shifting crossroads of internal and external inuences across shifting socio-economic, political and cultural landscapes. By deconstructing the story into the fabric and the fabric into the story, Coo left nothing untouched in the 550-page book divided into six chapters, having scoured multiple sources around the world as she should as a historian trained in Manila, Beijing. , and kind.

She analyzes the many layers of a delicate colonial society by exploring the meanings of the sartorial sensibilities of the colonizers and the colonized across the spectrum of race and class that dominated the 19th century. The clothing of children, men and women, whether Spanish, Filipino or Chinese, from the lower class to the metis and elites relate to the tensions of a period that preceded our national awakening in the latter part of the century. In an age particularly marked by hierarchy, the appearances of agents such as men and women, and the interaction between these two genders, are analyzed to demonstrate “dominance” and “subordination” among these groups. Coo recounts the aspirations of our illustrated, “talented and well-educated as they were, as expressed in Western costume”. Their donning the clothes of another society to gain a voice was a classic colonial declaration of equality with their colonial masters. In Western costumes, they presented themselves as equally educated, competent and tenacious men, ready to lead the new order they hoped to see come to fruition,” she wrote.

Around the start of the Philippine Revolution in 1896, the clothes, although characterized by a “divergence” at the turn of the century, as Coo explains, also revealed when the “convergence” or how we found our national becoming happened. As the country opened up more to the exchange of goods and ideas from beyond our shores and these inuences permeated the colony, local and regional variations in the appearance of Filipinos from area to area the other would have disappeared over time. Coo painted in Dress up the colony a comprehensive history of our struggle and unification through the fabric, and its use of several photos from various libraries and museums around the world serves to enrich and balance its encyclopedic study which can sometimes become exhaustive for the common reader, but nevertheless necessary in its in-depth investigation for scholars and creatives. Clothing, far from its apparent banalities, is analyzed as never before. The book reading experience wouldn’t be complete without Felix Mago Miguel Jr.’s beautiful design, including a cover that features a portrait of a woman in striking local dress blending in with a collage of carvings and of iconic Philippine architecture, and the elegant choice of silky cream paper.

Given its scope, the book is indeed many things at once. It is about the history of the Philippines and its colonial era, but also about the place of clothing in relation to its larger framework. Coo recognizes the complexity of the subject by situating the garment as if it were in an endless room of mirrors, seeing the many implications of each cut, shape and pattern across borders, walking the turbulent waters of stereotypes to look beyond the lure of easy categorization. . Yet, as all-encompassing as it is, at the heart of the book is an enduring interest in the materiality of local clothing per se amid traditions of dress, in the way we used to care to dress ourselves in exquisite local fabrics. such as pinahand woven from the fibers of pineapple and was used to create the barong tagalogand just, abaca bers, as a great testimony of who we are. The book began, if that’s any indication, with Coo recounting her childhood, surrounded by several ” baoulof local textiles of all kinds that her grandmother collected over the years.

It’s no wonder the author is as passionate as she is in the historical narratives superimposed on our textiles as she is in her material. More than the cultural significance of our clothes, the composition of our traditional fabrics is in itself worthy of admiration. Pina, as the queen of Filipino textiles, is a beautiful contradiction in the literal sense. Translucent, soft, but rigid, it is an ethereal fabric, made up of the many fibers of the pineapple, which veils the skin like clouds of smoke to “cause the imagination”. Such type of fabric also eludes mechanization and can only be made into a wearable piece by the skilled hands of weavers through long and laborious processes. The colonial society that Coo writes about, amid its parade of pomp and vanity, was rendered through the alluring beauty of local textiles.

Our present has every interest in turning to our clothing traditions for inspiration if the past is told through the nest of our fabrics. Informed by the relentless speed of consumption and production, much of modern life happens in a sea of ​​clinical buildings devoid of the artful intricacies of history, or perhaps, perhaps, of our humanity. Most of the clothes we wear have been produced, for example, in anonymous factories in developing countries that violate working conditions and depend on the [un]sustainable cycle of trends. But the fast but fashionable, of course, sells, and at an accessible price. Just as modernity in our lifestyles necessitates this waste, this waste also helps us catch up with the endless rush of modernity.

Yet, how long do we allow our current histories to reflect on synthetic fabrics, and how long do we engage in a culture that thrives on waste? The answer is not simple. But maybe there’s a way for nostalgia to compromise and permeate the weaving of our present, as Coo may have intended while writing his award-winning book. –

Addie Pobre is the project manager for the 39th National Book Awards.

After two years of virtualization, the Manila International Book Fair (MIBF) is finally returning live this year at the SMX Convention Center, Mall of Asia Complex in Pasay City from September 15-18.

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